Human Rights, Children's Rights, and Democracy

Sociology has existed in universities and as a research and scholarly profession for more than a century, but it has serious problems in justifying its existence in terms of demonstrating that the knowledge it produces is useful. In its early stages of development, sociology was often coupled with social work or with other fields such as anthropology, political science, and economics. However, as universities grew, the social and behavioral science fields became differentiated, and in the post–World War II period sociology not only grew but flourished and developed a major identity in the universities. However, more important, within the field applied interests were often disparaged. In large part, fields such as social work, family studies, industrial relations, systems analysis, administration, criminology, penology, and others became independent major entities as sociologists denigrated the notion of being involved in applied research and practice. In fact, in the last decades of the twentieth century sociologists appear more often to be seen as possible peripheral members in social research rather than the organizers of major social research, which is frequently motivated by practical, applied considerations.

Still, it is occasionally noted that sociology has been useful, but it is frequently and necessarily a quite modest statement. For example, it is often pointed out that sociology led much of the development and diffusion of statistical and other analytic procedures in the social sciences. Sociology also led the way in developing procedures for systematic data collection, which it has not only shared with other academic disciplines but which has become a part of common daily life, such as polling, investigative reporting, and so on. And the interest in social problems, consistent but peripheral for sociology over the years, has led to some involvement in race and ethnic relations, women’s rights, and human rights more generally. Incidentally, while sociology has failed to move in the direction of applied science, psychology has virtually exploded in that direction, leading to concern over the years that that discipline might detach its academic and research interests from the applied professional and clinical aspects. Indeed, the field of psychology has moved into areas of application neglected by sociology, such as family relations, group counseling and therapy, and environmental and ecological studies; other sister disciplines, such as anthropology, economics, and political science have made a similar move in order to increase the scope of development of applied interests.

The Relevance of Sociology

It is not unreasonable to raise the question: If sociology is presumed to be adding to the knowledge of the world, how can it be useful? This question has been raised throughout the history of the discipline, but that does not mean it has gotten serious attention. As a recent positive example, note the work of Turner (1998) and the subsequent comments on the topic. Another recent consideration of ‘‘The Value of Sociology’’ that provides perspective is the article by Snow (1999), but to some extent much of the discussion about the value of sociology is abstract, albeit broader than some earlier particularistic orientations, which took the view that if sociology was not valuable, it would not be in the college or university curriculum. Two sentences from the abstract of Turner’s article (p.243) provide an orientation to answering the question: ‘‘It is argued that sociological theory and its applications to real world problems should constitute the core of the discipline . . . . Sociology should redefine and reorient its practice to create an engineering discipline where abstract theoretical principles are boiled down to rules of thumb and used to build or tear down social structures’’ (p. 243). This is a more direct statement of the idea that sociology should be useful.

Part of the reason for the hesitancy of sociologists to become interested in applied research is the way the field was defined—as ‘‘the science of society.’’ Scientists study and analyze their subject matter, but they do not determine what is right and proper for society. The task of determining laws, custom, and mores is not seen by them as being their task, and indeed there is commonly great concern that the values of social scientists should not influence their research and scholarly work. Thus, applied research in sociology has often been defined as examining what is going on in a social situation, in order to determine the underlying social forces at work. If a social policy is involved, the aim of the research may be to see if it is working; with the introduction of a new social policy, research ismost typically aimed at seeing whether stated objectives can be confirmed. Much of the interest in applied research in the social sciences became associatedwith the concept of ‘‘evaluation research,’’ particularly in the post– World War II period, with stimulus from sociologists such as Donald Young and Leonard S. Cottrell, Jr., at Russell Sage Foundation. However, stimulus for evaluation research occurred in other ways as well, such as through laboratories and research centers in educational psychology, social psychology, and other behavioral and social sciences, with research often being supported by such government agencies as the National Institute of Mental Health. These thrusts led to two important developments for the social and behavioral sciences. The first was the growth of methodological sophistication, often identified with the classic codifying work on quasi-experimental research design by Campbell and Stanley (1963) andCook and Campbell (1979). The second was the notion that evaluation research could be of two types: conventional research, in which the disinterested researcher merely seeks to describe what happens when policy changes are introduced, and ‘‘formative’’ research, wherein the social scientist is not only involved in the evaluation of the consequences of policy changes but is a consultant in the process of identifying the changes needed to accomplish the goals of proposed policy, often with sequential evaluations and changes when the desired results do not materialize with the initial changes.

Throughout this history of social science involvement in applied research, evaluations have often produced negative (i.e., no change) findings, and in some cases even retrogression or reversal on the intended change direction and/or unintended consequences. But, independently of all these results, it can be asked whether the presumed knowledge of sociology and the social sciences is being used effectively, and the answer has been that this does not appear to be the case, at least in the context of one type of criticism. This critique has been advanced many times in different ways, and in the context of this article it will be phrased as not satisfying options of ‘‘proactive sociology’’ (see Borgatta 1991, 1994, 1996). In particular, do sociologists evaluate the social and behavioral structures that exist in society and put them in a comparative perspective? Do sociologists examine the values that exist and describe them objectively, presumably correctly interpreting what they are? Do sociologists examine stated values and see how well social structures that exist implement the identified values? Before proceeding to further consideration of these questions, consider one relevant case.

Democracy and Individual Rights

While no form of government can effectively be defined as maximizing the provision of human rights and children’s rights, there is a strong basis for arguing that democratic forms are more likely to do so in the long run than other governmental forms. There are a fair number of nations that at this juncture appear to be reasonably well oriented to protecting human and children’s rights, but attention to a little bit of history should keep one from becoming complaisant about the prospect. For example, in the United States slavery existed until the end of the Civil War, less than a century and a half ago. Until the amendments that followed the Civil War, if one read the Constitution of the United States one might have thought women were entitled to the same rights as men, but they were not. The assumption that women were not entitled to the same rights as men was so ingrained in the culture that it was not even necessary that it be made explicit. It was a world in which men governed; women did not even get the right to vote until half a century after the end of the Civil War. And the history of the expansion of the United States and its relationship with Mexico and with the American Indians may give pause to those who think that simply having a government that is labeled a democracy is one in which ‘‘social justice’’ writ small and large is to be expected.

n a democracy the de facto rules do not necessarily provide equal protection under the law for all persons, and the majority or even a smaller segment of society may define the rules. In more recent times, there have been examples of restrictive abuse in the United States, as in the passing of the constitutional amendment that established ‘‘prohibition’’ of alcohol. Aside from attempting to restrict the choice behavior of citizens, the amendment created the era of gangsters and racketeers. Although that constitutional amendment was repealed, there remain numerous laws prohibiting access to certain substances among the most obvious of which are the laws restricting ‘‘drugs.’’ More than the outlawing of alcohol during prohibition, the drug laws have created the circumstances leading to the incarceration of the overwhelming majority of the roughly 1.5 million people in the U.S. prison system today. But more generally, in a democracy, all kinds of laws may be passed that restrict individual rights. Germany’s progression from a democratic government to Hitler’s dictatorship, although an extreme case, should never be forgotten. Similarly, the cases in which liberal or ‘‘socialist’’ regimes have been overthrown with the help of the great American Democracy, only to be followed by totalitarian regimes, may be seen as disturbing.

To continue with the example of the United States, the McCarthy period in the 1950s is an example of rampant political witch hunts. But consider even the more recent partisan political situation, also termed a witch hunt by some, involving a person as powerful as the president of the United States. A Republican majority in the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president, sending two articles of impeachment to the Senate, which was to ‘‘try’’ the president to determine his guilt or innocence, with a guilty finding by two-thirds of the Senate requiring removal from office. Here we will not discuss the constitutional issues involved, or the moral and legal failings of the president in the matter, but only pay analytical attention to the strange articles of impeachment to show how subtly the power of a majority can create a situation that counters ‘‘fairness’’ and fails to protect even the rights of a president (see Congressional Record, December 19,1998).

Two articles of impeachment were passed in the House of Representatives by an essentially partisan vote of the Republican majority; hereattention will be given only to the question of what is minimally necessary to arrive at a guilty verdict by twothirds, or 67, of the 100 senators. Article I states in part: ‘‘Contrary to that oath, William Jefferson Clinton willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury concerning one or more of the following . . . .’’ Then four alleged ‘‘testimonies’’ were noted. Now, any sociologist or statistician should be able to analyze the charge and ask the question, ‘‘What would the minimum guilt attribution be to create a majority of 67 senators voting guilty?’’ Simple, since only one alleged testimony is required to judge the president guilty, if 16 senators voted guilty on the first testimony and 17 different (nonoverlapping) senators voted guilty on each of the three other testimonies, the majority of 67 would be created to judge the president guilty of Article I. Thus, the extraordinary situation exists that theoretically the president could be judged guilty by no more than 17 senators on any of the four testimonies, but he could be judged guilty by 67 senators because of the way the question was formulated! What a strange way for a democracy to operate. Of course, the situation is even more ridiculous with regard to Article II, which is also defined in the ‘‘one or more’’ fashion, but involves seven ‘‘acts,’’ leading to the situation that theoretically the minimum number of senators needed (nonoverlapping) is 9 for three ‘‘acts’’ and 10 for each of the other four to get a cumulative majority of 67 senators voting guilty. Thus, it can be seen how the Republican congressmen were able to structure a vote in any way they wished, since they constituted the majority in the House of Representatives. It has been said many times that an effective democracy requires constant attention to how power is used and how the rights of all individuals, even of the president, are protected.

Democracy is a common topic of study, and topics relevant to issues of human rights are implicit in many presentations, as, for example, those in a special issue of International Sociology (‘‘Democratic Culture,’’ 1999).

Human Rights and Children's Rights

With regard to human rights and children’s rights, attention must be given to providing, as much as possible, for the protection for all persons, and presumably this can happen most dependably in a democracy. However, some things need to be emphasized. Special rights can be legislated for particular individuals or groups, and because they are often accepted as reasonable, this may lead to some abuses and strange situations. For example, it has been repeatedly stated that with regard to human rights, the attribution of status on an inherited basis does not correspond to a concept of equal opportunity and equal treatment. If this is the case, then how do equal opportunity and equal treatment operate with regard to other aspects of inheritance? If a parent is rich, owning $70 billion of assets, the child could inherit roughly $30 billion in the United States under current law. If the parent is poor, the child may not inherit anything. Further, in being raised in the rich family, the child may have extraordinary forms of support and access to resources that the poor child does not have. The capitalist system may provide the possibility of upward mobility in a democracy, but considering the advantages of the wealthy, the playing fields for the rich and the poor are not equal. Thus, even if the state mandates a strong support system for all children, human rights and children’s rights are still subject to a relative notion of the importance of inherited status. Question: How much attention do sociologists give to this kind of analysis and identification of the values involved? The sociologist, of course, should be able to note that the general system even in a democracy can provide a very strong support of inherited status. The acceptance of inherited status is stillrampant in much of the world, beginning with any nation in which there is a notion of royalty, which of course includes Great Britain and some other developed nations that are classed as democracies.

This article began by noting that sociologists and other social scientists should become more concerned with the possibility of proactive involvement in social change. As regards the above example, a major concern of the sociologist would be not only to consider and analyze the consequences of existing social policy, but also to realistically represent the value system that presumably underlies the social policy. As has been implicit thus far, social policy often does not correspond to the values that are espoused. There is reason for concern in being involved in this proactive orientation, since often values are not consistently aligned and may conflict. Most dramatically, a traditional view of the family may conflict with the notion that children are due equal opportunity and access to resources in society, the provision of which necessarily becomes a community or state function. The tradition of parental ‘‘ownership’’ of children simply may conflict with providing children with equal access to the resources that exist in the society. Thus, the analysis of values becomes a critical area for sociological research. Beyond this, if there is a thrust for moving toward ‘‘universal’’ values regarding human and children’s rights, then in the proactive orientation sociologists and other social scientists who are ostensibly knowledgeable about how social structures operate should be able to model and propose social structures in order to implement these values.

Human Rights

Human rights, or the rights and privileges that every person should expect and receive in a just or ‘‘good’’ society, have been a concern of philosophers through the ages, and commonly this interest has been reassociated with such concepts as ‘‘social justice.’’ Although this philosophical topic has also been addressed in religious and political codes and documents, the first really broad and broadly supported international statement on the topic is to be found in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949), which was approved by the U.N. General Assembly on 10 December 1948. Sociologists might give this document critical attention. Are the rights that are noted consistent with each other; if not, what are the inconsistencies and how might they be resolved? Thus, the study of implicit values becomes a vital area for sociologists. Questions that become obvious include questions about the priorities of the values. The Universal Declaration begins with a preamble that states: ‘‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world . . .’’ It goes on to elaborate on these rights and then states: ‘‘The General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.’’ There followed thirty articles that can be summarized as follows:

1. ‘‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights . . .’’

2. All are entitled ‘‘. . . without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status . . .’’

3. ‘‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.’’

4. ‘‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.’’

5. ‘‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’’

6. ‘‘Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.’’

7. ‘‘All are equal before the law and . . . equal protection before the law . . . .’’

8. ‘‘Everyone has the right to . . . national tribunals . . . .’’

9. ‘‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.’’

10. Elaboration is provided for entitlement to ‘‘. . . fair and public hearing . . . .’’

11. ‘‘Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty . . . . No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence . . . .’’

12. ‘‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation . . . .’’

13. ‘‘Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.’’

14. ‘‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’’

15. ‘‘Everyone has the right to a nationality . . . .’’

16. ‘‘Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality, or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights . . . entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’’

17. ‘‘Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others . . . .’’

18. ‘‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion . . .’’

19. ‘‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression . . . .’’

20. ‘‘Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association . . . .’’

21. ‘‘Everyone has the right to take part in the government . . . .’’

22. ‘‘Everyone . . . has the right to social security . . . .’’

23. ‘‘Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment . . . .’’

24. ‘‘Everyone has the right to rest and leisure . . . .’’

25. ‘‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being . . . .’’

26. ‘‘Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human right and fundamental freedoms . . . . Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.’’

27. ‘‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life . . . . Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.’’

Articles 28 to 30 deal with

(1) the rights to an international community in which these rights are realized;

(2) respect for the rights and freedoms of others; and

(3) maintenance of morality, public order, and the general welfare of a democratic society, in a manner that is not contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

It is not until Article 29 that one realizes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights implicitly assumes a democratic form of government in all nations. Therefore, the approval of the Universal Declaration in 1948 by a vote of 48 to 0 with 8 abstentions—from the U.S.S.R., Ukraine, Byelorussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Saudi Arabia, and the Union of South Africa—is not ununderstandable. However, what is important for sociologists is that this is an attempt at identifying of universals, which presumably can be the basis for examining existing social structures and dealing with explorations of how social structures can be made to support the values involved. But before getting into such an enterprise, it is necessary to reiterate the idea that the values incorporated into the Universal Declaration themselves need to made explicit.

Before going on to subsequent developments in the area of human rights, a few remarks about the Universal Declaration are appropriate. First, human rights in this document are allocated specifically to individuals. This is in keeping with the notion that only individuals have status before the law. Of course, throughout history, particularly with the beginning of industrialization, the law has given status to entities other than individuals, most obviously corporate structures, including religious organizations, schools and foundations, and unions. Provision of rights before the law to such entities has consequences for individual human rights. Second—and this is a consideration that will become more prominent in subsequent comments—the rights provided are ambiguously allocated to adults, but the Universal Declaration provides no definition of adult status. Thus the definition of a vital concept is omitted—but quite a few other important concepts are also named but not defined. Implicitly, the concepts are subject to definition in the state where the individual resides. To give an example of the ambiguity, let us look at Article 16: ‘‘Men and women of full age, without limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.’’ It is not clear what full age means. Is it twelve years of age, fifteen, sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-one? Men and women have a right to marry, but does that mean one of each, or any combination of men and women? In terms of history and ethnic/religious variations, this is not a trivial question. ‘‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’’ What is a family? There is so much variation in any anthropological view of the family as to make this a very vague concept, and the definition is continuing to change in modern industrial societies, what with the arrival of birth control and divorce and sequential multiple marriage. Sociologists and other social scientists obviously can provide some bases for clarification of these statements of rights and values. Other issues that arise with United Nations documents are emphasized in subsequent sections.

At this point it is appropriate to note that when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was voted on, it was emphasized that it did not have the status of a treaty. A treaty was in preparation, however, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), which incorporated much of the Universal Declaration, was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, in 1966.. By 1985, 80 of the 159 members had ratified the treaty. The treaty changed some of the orientation, however, as can be seen by Article 1, which states: ‘‘All people have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. The States . . . shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination . . . .’’ The treaty begins with an ambiguous statement on how states are to operate, not on individual human rights. Unfortunately, it also contains language that responds to political entities, and one radical interpretation of the language suggests that any political entity effectively has the right to become independent. It needs to be emphasized that human rights—and closely topics related such as genocide, women’s rights, and children’s rights (to be considered below)— have been the subject of many actions in the U.N. General Assembly.

The literature in the field of human rights does not appear to have a major sociological component, but some sociological studies do exist (Buergenthal 1997; Gros Espeill 1998; Magnarella 1995; Pace 1998).

Children's Rights

The issues associated with children’s rights are anticipated in part in the movement from the Universal Declaration to the International Covenant. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration states that everyone has the right to education but that parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education to be given to their children. In the International Covenant, more is said about the parental role. Article 18, for example, states: ‘‘The States . . . undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents . . . to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.’’ Further, Article 23 states: ‘‘Every child shall have . . . the right to such measures of protection required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, the society and the State.’’ This elaboration on the involvement of the society and the State raises many questions about the rights of children. Let us look at this in terms of education issues.

First, some attention must be given to the question of what constitutes education. A primary concept obviously is that there should be access to literacy—the ability to read and write. But other skills can also be important, as is exposure to what is classed as knowledge. Using a simplistic index, such as the one used in ‘‘Why Family Planning Matters’’ (1999), it is estimated that, of 4.8 billion people in developing countries, 45 percent of females and 54 percent of males of the relevant age group are in secondary school, suggesting that education is still relatively primitive in most of the world. Possibly more striking is that in twenty-six of the thirty-nine sub-Saharan African nations for which data are reported, less than 20 percent of females of the relevant age group are in secondary school. So, somehow much of the world is not yet in tune with the values in the U.N. treaties with regard to education. For sociologists, even these facts can be a challenge. Assuming that the value of education is seen as an important ‘‘universal’’ value, what is necessary to implement it in developing countries?

The question of the education of children goes beyond such components as literacy, and basic knowledge bases to other values that need attention to be clarified. For example, consider the allocation of rights ‘‘. . . of parents . . . to ensure the religious and moral education of the their children in conformity with their own convictions.’’ This is indoctrination, and it is directly inconsistent with the notion that the children should be educated. To state the matter crassly, children are subject to indoctrination into specific belief systems, with no opportunity for choice. Children are not exposed to competing belief systems. Beyond indoctrination into belief systems, children are subject to behavior restrictions and physical practices. For example, circumcision of male children is a common form of irreversible mutilation that is imposed by parents and often by the dominant culture. Health-based rationale are sometimes advanced for the practice, without apparent support, and in addition it is suggested that the practice does little harm. The same cannot be said about the ‘‘circumcision’’ of female children, in which the mutilation involves the removal of sensitive sexual tissue. While there has been substantial negative reaction to female circumcision, it is prevalent in a number of less developed countries. It has to be noted that the ‘‘community’’ and the governing bodies in these countries often support the indoctrination of children. This is not surprising, since many of these countries tend to be either formally or informally theocratic and children are indoctrinated not only through their parents but also through other community support systems. By contrast, in developed countries, where education is more widespread and substantial, belief systems may persist through parents and some community support systems, but modifications are obvious. For example, in Italy, where most of the population are Roman Catholic, the birthrate is the lowest among all developed countries, in spite of the papal condemnation of birth control methods other than abstention or rhythm. It would be naive to believe that Italians are not using modern techniques of birth control.

The treaty basis for children’s rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on 20 November 1989. The document contains fifty-four articles, but the greater detail does not alter the problem of value clarification, and in some ways some of the statements of rights create greater ambiguity. For example, Article 14 states: ‘‘States . . . shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’’ From where will the child have acquired thought, conscience and religion?’’ Note also the role of the parents in Article 18: ‘‘Parents . . . have the primary responsibilities for upbringing and development of the child.’’ Much of the document seems to consist of platitudinous statements that the parents will be good and the state will help them. However, sociologists and other social scientists may find it challenging to try to assess structures that might facilitate this. Situations in different nations may be quite different because of underlying differences in the social and economic circumstances. For example, much current political rhetoric in the United States focuses on strengthening the family so that it can better serve children. How is this to be done? Presumably, sociologists would examine the current dichotomy between reality and rhetoric, noting the shift over the course of the twentieth century from large families with a single working head to small families, sometimes with two working parents, sometimes with single parent. How could the family be strengthened? The conventional/conservative notion of the mother staying home might not be the right answer. One possible answer that needs to be looked at is discarding school patterns that have their roots in the rural past and replacing them with patterns that meet current needs, such as full-day, year-long schooling, which recognizes that parents are not available until the end of the workday and do not have three-month summer vacations. Another possible answer would be to provide supervision and instruction at a level that corresponds to what research says is needed: rather than acquiescing to the economics of minimum support and unrealistic expectations about what schools as now constituted can produce. When something like the latter is suggested, too often the response is that it is not realistic because of cost and convention. On the contrary, and this is an important point: If that is what the analysis of social scientists finds, there should be insistence that it is realistic.

While there has been a substantial amount written about the rights of the child, one particularly accessible source is especially recommended—the 1996 issue of the American Psychologist that is devoted in large part to the topic (Limber and Wilcox 1996; Melton 1996; Murphy-Berman and Weisz 1996; Saks 1996) With regard to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it should be noted that at this writing the treaty has been ratified by all member nations of the United Nations except two: Somalia and the United States.


Human rights and children’s rights are topics that provide rich potential for research and applied involvement for sociologists and other social scientists. The United Nations has given considerable attention to issues of human rights, and this brief consideration has barely scratched the surface. Sociologists have given attention to some aspects of human rights in detail, including issues of women’s rights and racial and other discrimination, but even in these topics the focus has often been narrow considering the varieties of problems and issues in the world.

Special circumstances bring issues of human rights to prominence, and at the end of the twentieth century the issue of genocide has been given substantial attention. Even this issue should be carefully examined by sociologists and social scientists. For example, in a syndicated column Alexander Cockburn wrote: ‘‘In 1996, [Madeleine] Albright was asked the following question on CBS-TV’s ’60 Minutes’ by Lesley Stahl: ‘We have heard that half a million children have died [in Iraq]. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And you know, is the price worth it?’ Albright infamously replied, ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.’ So, back in Nuremburg time, Albright would certainly have been condemned and maybe hanged, if the standards applied to Seyss-Inquart had been leveled against her and if she had been on the losing side. So would her commanding officer, Bill Clinton’’ (Seattle Times, June 3, 1999). The winning side has always defined what is acceptable, but its actions should be subject to objective analysis. Cockburn went on to note: ‘‘The protocols of the Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibit bombing not justified by clear military necessity. If there is any likelihood the target has a civilian function, then bombing is forbidden. NATO’s bombers have damaged and often destroyed hospitals and healthcare centers, public housing, infrastructure vital to the well-being of civilians, refineries, warehouses, agricultural facilities, schools, road and railways. If Slobodan Milosevic goes on trial before before the International Criminal Court, Clinton, Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen should have their place on the court’s calendar, too.’’ It has also been pointed out that the NATO bombings in Serbia were carried out with the defined expectation that there would be no NATO military casualties, and there were none. The Serb military was to be reduced in effectiveness, meaning the destruction not only of military physical resources but also of personnel in barracks and persons in government centers and other related circumstances; there was also the expectation that there would be ‘‘collateral damage,’’ that is, civilian casualties. Of course, the Serbs killed Kosovo Albanians during the forced expulsion, but the irony was that after the collapse of the Serbs, the process was reversed. The agenda for social scientists in such matters is one of requiring objectivity in the analysis of the values and the documents and in the reporting of the events. While Cockburn’s critique may be rejected, it should be done so on the basis of the objective facts and the relevance of defined values, not on the basis of the interpretation of the winning side. History is full of uncomfortable facts, and in retrospectively looking at questions of human rights, we have to remember such things as that victory over Japan in World War II came by means of nuclear destruction of two Japanese cities, not two Japanese armies.

Sociologists have not focused sufficiently on human and children’s rights with regard to clarifying the ‘‘universal’’ values that the United Nations has promulgated and in which the international community has concurred. Some issues are very complex, loaded with traditional and religious values that directly conflict with those in the Universal Declaration, which tend to be stated in broad and/or general humanistic terms. For example, in a nation that is dominated by a single religion—one that is virtually actually a theocracy—dogmas and traditions supported by the community and in families, may dictate highly restricted status for behavior by women. In a modern industrial nation, this may be viewed as depriving women of their human rights.

The conflict between values that emphasize the good of the broader community and those presumed to be individual human rights is also a critical area for attention by sociologists. One such conflict exists in the values involved in family planning and fertility control. From the community point of view, which may be phrased as ‘‘for the good of the society at large,’’ there may be a need for fertility control. For example, although the world (or a nation) may be able to support a tremendous increase in population, such population growth also carries the potential for catastrophic famines and epidemics. The potential problems may result in a general value being placed on the importance of family planning and fertility control by both developed and less developed nations. How is population growth to be attenuated? ‘‘Educational’’ programs have had some success in less developed nations, especially those with a potential for modernization and industrialization. In China, with a tradition of valuing large families, especially male children, the government decided that a strict policy of one child only was necessary to stay population growth. When this policy was implemented, the population was about 90 percent rural, and it currently is still predominantly so. Is such a policy reasonable, and how can it be implemented? The implementation was possible through the form of government that existed, but not without some abuses and also some relaxations of the policy. Here the sociologist can be asked the practical question. How could the policy be implemented without some problems, that is, what would the sociologist instruct the policy makers to do to get the same effect as was accomplished? How are people to be made to adhere to a ‘‘one-child-family’’ policy? Many different types of suggestions can be advanced, including questioning the premise that such a policy is necessary or even appropriate. The argument may shift to empirical questions and estimates, and the like, while the world population continues to increase from 6 billion at the beginning of the twenty-first century to estimates as high as 15 billion by the year 2050. Then the question of quality of life comes into play. At this point, roughly 1.5 billion people live in more or less developed nations and 4.5 billion in less developed nations. What would happen if those in less developed nations used resources at the same rate as those in developed nations? What would happen if, in fifty years, 15 billion people used resources at the level they are currently used in the United States today? The critical analyst might point out that population control is more essential in developed nations, since one additional person there might use twenty (or as much as one hundred) times the resources as one person in a less developed nation. Sociologists obviously have fertile ground for research in examining how social structures might support values that are advanced as ‘‘universals’’ for human and children’s rights.

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